Distancing / Awareness

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How scholarly work could be more informative and integrated, and what a challenge this is!

By William Eaton

{Note: The following text was prepared to be delivered at the 2014 annual conference of the Association of Graduate Liberal Studies Programs, the theme of which was “Revolutions: Past, Present, and Future.” It has been revised for print publication. It is also one in Zeteo‘s Fall 2014 series of pieces related to borders.}


The Personal, The Political, and The Intellectual

Zeteo takes a particular interest in articles and essays that combine personal, political, and intellectual perspectives. On a simple level this means that we urge writers to include in their pieces discussion of how they have come to their subjects, and to not be afraid of using autobiographical examples or of expressing political views. We have an idea that the result is a more “holistic” and more truthful work, because the writer’s particular perspective and interests are part of the discussion rather than being denied and kept under wraps.

This approach also makes a philosophical claim. This claim certainly connects with Nietzsche’s idea that there are no facts, only interpretations. But I would put the matter another way: if writers and readers include in their discussions information or ruminations about their particular perspectives and about the sources of their work, the understanding on offer will be broader and deeper. Further, the work will speak to what human knowledge may be and to its limitations.

In speaking of the “sources” of a given piece, what do I have in mind? One answer would have to do with how the research, the writing time, and the writer were paid for. Another answer would focus on techniques—first-hand research or secondary texts, empiricism or induction, etc. Another answer speaks to the writer’s motivations for doing the work. Why, for example, did Vanessa Badagliacca, one of our contributors, decide to devote a not insignificant portion of her life to writing about a Chinese artist’s environmental sculpture, Doing Nothing Garden, and about how it connects to Arte Povera and to writings of Gilles Clément and Giorgio Agamben?

Badagliacca addresses this question in several places in the piece, to include in the introduction. This from the beginning:

I grew up hearing the recurring expression that if you . . . didn’t catch “the train” passing right at that moment you would miss it. You would lose your chance to do something, to meet someone, to experience something, to get something, to take the chance of a lifetime. Reflecting on Song Dong’s Doing Nothing Garden, I am more and more convinced that “doing nothing” is not only an active attitude, but even a dynamic attitude. . . . “Doing nothing” is not the opposite of “doing.” Recognizing the dual existence of these two concepts may help us regain our balance.

This is also to say that the work was helping Badagliacca regain her own balance.

Where We’re Going from Here

The rest of this piece will focus on two works that did not appear in Zeteo: the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil (or 1 + 1) and Alfred Kinsey’s reports on human, or mid-twentieth-century American, sexuality. Albeit haltingly, they point the way toward some of the larger advantages and also challenges of more holistic—or more “self-conscious”—work.

To head off confusion I need to stress that the Godard example broadens the discussion, leading it beyond questions of motivation. The Kinsey example will run us smack into the intersection of the personal, political, and intellectual, and point up how difficult such holistic work can be. In this way I am underscoring another aspect of the Zeteo project: exploration, to include the questioning our own assumptions. “Zeteo” is an ancient Greek and New Testament word which has been translated as to challenge, to question, to seek honestly, to dispute, to debate and pose alternative ideas and solutions. I hope that this is indeed what the journal and the present text involve.

Sympathy for the Devil

Sympathy for the Devil found a home in this paper, and indeed this whole paper took shape, thanks to a line in the British film theorist Laura Mulvey’s seminal article on the male gaze: Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (Screen 3, Autumn 1975). At one point Mulvey writes about how commercial films “eliminate intrusive camera presence and prevent a distancing awareness in the audience” (my italics). With the word “distancing,” she is noting that filmmakers do not want to interfere with the viewers’ suspension of disbelief, their absorption in the movie, and their voyeuristic pleasure. In this context “awareness” is a problem; it gets in the way. I would linger here a moment because we often think of “distancing” and “awareness” as being at opposite ends of a spectrum, and because the present paper seeks to make a case for less distancing and more integration, and therefore for more awareness.

Personally, I often find that when I go to the movies something like the camera in fact does intrude at certain moments: during nude scenes and sex scenes. When, in a darkened movie theater, I see, say, a young woman leaving her boyfriend on the rocks as she strips off her clothes and dives naked into a mountain pool, I often find myself wondering about and indeed picturing the director in his chair, and various technicians with their booms and lenses surrounding the actors, and the miles of cables, the sandwiches and coffee laid out on side tables. It seems to me that at such moments I am having a fuller experience of the movie than when I am more distanced from the production process. It is not that I am “seeing more” of an actor’s flesh; I am seeing the illusion more clearly and understanding it better. I would be seeing even more were I at the same time able to hear the various negotiations about the script and lighting. I would like, too, to overhear the negotiations involving money. The movie and this scene are, after all, first and foremost a commercial product. Views of scantily clothed, youthful, and physically attractive women and men have been a staple of the entertainment business for many, many years, and so there is a sense in which a woman’s naked dive into a pond is only secondarily a “plot element.” Viewers are being offered a strip tease, and by starting from this fact we could come to understand the scene more fully than if, with distanced awareness, we focused on the motivations of the character the naked actress is ostensibly bringing to celluloid or pixelated life.

There is a sense in which the whole point of this paper is right here. To offer another, more academic example, imagine an article on the social spiders of Brazil that allowed its readers at key moments to see elements of a larger picture—the incredible agricultural productivity that has freed some humans to devote their lives to doing studies that seem to have no direct economic or political value; the psychological motivations that may drive an individual to study social spiders; the challenges of human solitude and sociability that may serve as a backdrop. By not touching on such things—by using the rhetoric of “objective” scholarship to keep readers (and, indeed, the author too) distanced from this larger picture or pictures—the writers prevent “a distancing awareness” in their audience. By narrowing our vision, they may increase our escapist pleasure, the escapist pleasure of empirical scientific research, I am calling this. In les Pensées Pascal points out that human beings can be diverted—from the truth and the divine—not only by cue sticks and billiard balls, but also by mathematics problems and by analyzing human behavior, and by the pursuit of intellectual celebrity.

Sympathy for the Devil (1968) is one movie in which a filmmaker experiments with allowing viewers to see more of the filmmaking process. It is a frustrating movie to watch (and I am ready to send my DVD off to anyone interested). The movie is frustrating not least because half of it offers us a behind the scenes look at the Rolling Stones recording one of their hits, but this “look”—take after take of the same song—keeps making us feel that we do not understand how the song was created or how it was made into a hit. During the same period, a French satirical song about the media had the refrain “Plus on apprend plus on ne sait rien.” (The more we learn, the less we know.) I take this to be a theme of Godard’s movie as well. We are awash in media, information, and claims of meaning, and these are like an ever-expanding wall between us and understanding. And, yes, this is one of the questions this paper is asking: do articles and essays that combine the personal, the political, and the intellectual widen our understanding and thus, inter alia, further swamp us and/or push us to recognize the frustrating limits of human understanding? Can such writing help us appreciate how we are confined (or held securely?) by our subjectivity, by our view through one particular lens, or through a particular set of lenses: the human set?

In my favorite Sympathy for the Devil scene, “Eve Democracy,” an attractive young woman in a white frock, is wandering barefoot in a scruffy, over-exposed forest. Swirling around her is a meager film crew, which is engaged in a charade, since the film we are watching cannot be their work, since we see them in it. An interviewer peppers Eve with questions: “Do you feel exploited . . . the moment you step into an interview?” “Orgasm is the only moment when you can’t cheat life?” One has a feeling that the director has allowed the actress to answer as she wishes, but with only these two words: “Yes” or “No.” She enjoys complete freedom to be meaningless?

Sympathy for the Devil was hardly a great commercial success, and its interest in presenting, simultaneously, distancing fantasies and some of the means of their production certainly played a role in limiting its receipts. My sense is that it is much the same with “holistic” intellectual articles, essays, and books. If the writer is willing and able to speak to us about why and how the work was produced, he, or she, may heighten our understanding and thus in some senses deny us pleasures, diversions from the truth and the divine. The writer may induce “distancing awareness,” denying us the safe refuge we often seek in intellectual work, pushing us to see what we would not.

Of course this desire to limit our view is not only psychological. I recall a heart specialist’s observation that for a period of ten years or so it was impossible to get funding for or to publish research that challenged the efficacy of statin drugs, which had become a multibillion-dollar business, a business fueled in part by the all-too-human wish to believe that science can indeed come up with miracle cures, erasing the human predicament, our mortality included. This is not to say that during this period earnest people did not do earnest experiments with statins, doing their best to produce objective evidence, reproducible results. But the camera was never pulled back to show the context in which the research was being done, a context in which certain questions could not be asked and in which funds and jobs were available, and only available, to those interested in exploring certain other questions. (I am reminded of the iconoclastic painter Robert Cenedella’s observation about museums and art galleries: “It’s not what they show, it’s what they don’t show.”)

It is easy enough these days to meet or read about scientists who shifted the focus of their research to subjects that were attracting more funding and whose devotees were winning more of the prizes. And if we are to say that the pool-diving scene was fundamentally about the ongoing economic viability of striptease, we might say, too, that a good deal of scientific research is about the pursuit of funding and prizes, or, more simply, ambition. (This was the theme of a book that made a great impression on me when I was growing up—James Watson and Francis Crick’s The Double Helix, about the race to discover the structure of DNA and, thereby, win a Nobel Prize.)


Kinsey and the Kinsey Reports

I will now offer the example of an intellectual work that, though controversial and groundbreaking, avoided taking up personal and political challenges that were central to its production. It will be seen that it would have been impossible for the principal author and his colleagues to have taken up these challenges, and yet, at the same time, I believe the example shows how much more might have been learned if this impossibility had not stood in the way. The work is Alfred Kinsey’s (and the Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University’s) Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, also known as the Kinsey Reports.

The account on offer here owes a good deal to two excellent biographies: Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, Kinsey: Sex the Measure of All Things: a Life of Alfred C. Kinsey (Indiana University Press, 1998) and James H. Jones, Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life (W.W. Norton, 1997). From Jones’s Preface and then much later on in his text:

In recent years there has been a tendency to argue that if science is the produce of personal needs and motivations, then this somehow discredits scientific discoveries. Yet Kinsey’s science was driven by needs that were not simply idiosyncratic but deeply embedded in our culture. His problems, albeit in exaggerated form, were the nation’s problems.

However much he [Kinsey] talked about science’s need for data, this was not his primary motivation. Again, his research sprang from a private agenda shaped by personal politics. Decades of inner turmoil had transformed Kinsey into a rebel, a man who rejected the sexual mores of his age. He meant to change the public’s thinking on sexual matters. Convinced that cold, hard facts alone would persuade the public to develop more tolerant sexual attitudes, Kinsey was determined to provide those data.

Prior to becoming a famous sex researcher, Kinsey had a successful academic career as an entomologist. His particular interest was the differences within species, and he studied this subject with a furious, voire sadistic, compulsivity, traveling the US and Mexico to collect, it is said, more than 5 million examples of gall wasps. As insect collectors are wont to do, he killed these individuals (5 million of them?) and pinned and labelled them, and he measured more than twenty different aspects of their anatomies, along the way demonstrating that there were substantial, significant differences between individuals of this species. Subsequently, more famously and much more influentially, he used a similarly compulsive approach to gathering data about human sexuality and made a similar argument that there were substantial, significant variations in our sexual inclinations and behaviors, and that these variations were as normal as those of the wasps.

Insofar as we have an eye out for the role of money, we would like to explore, too, the motivations of those in and around Indiana University and the Rockefeller Foundation: the supporters of Kinsey’s sex research. (They supported his work to advance their own various interests, to include in de-stigmatizing homosexuality and in developing social policies and programs to better control human sexual behavior.) I would also not ignore the no-facts-only-interpretations perspective with which this piece began. And yet, this said, I will now focus on the currently dominant interpretation of how the personal, political, and intellectual combined in Kinsey’s own research and writing.

Since Kinsey’s death, in 1956, it has come out that he had a powerful personal interest in the conclusions he reached. He himself was by nature quite promiscuous and had strong homosexual and masochistic urges that were not considered normal or acceptable in the society in which he grew up. For most of his lifetime, and even after the publication of his research, these variations (to include urethral insertions and tying a rope around his scrotum and tugging hard while he masturbated) were not considered part of the normal range of variations acceptable in the human species (or in Americans at least). Rather, the variations were considered frighteningly abnormal.

Supposing that Kinsey, just for his part, had been more upfront about the personal and political purposes of his research. (With “political” here being used not to refer to elections, but to social attitudes and roles more generally.) Let’s not skip over the first challenge: such upfrontness or transparency might have demanded a degree of self-examination of which Kinsey was not capable, and understandably so. (He was a human being.) The biographical materials I have read have given me the impression that it was only through doing his research that Kinsey got in touch with the extent of his homosexual and masochistic urges. It was his research that took him to what could now be called “gay” bars in Chicago, and it was patrons of these bars who realized better than Kinsey himself that he was not just there to get more of his surveys filled out.

Secondarily, there is the obvious fact that if Kinsey had been able to be upfront about the personal interests and “political” goals he brought to the research, the entire research project and its conclusions would have been called into question, and likely the research would never have been completed and Kinsey’s impact on American society would have been minimal at best. The funding would have dried up and any preliminary conclusions, no matter how accurate or applicable to or useful for many more people than Kinsey and his backers, would not have been taken seriously. (My sense is that these “facts,” about the rules that govern the theater of modern science, are yet more significant than those that Kinsey uncovered or proposed as regards human sexuality.)

The calling into question of Kinsey’s work would have been two pronged. On the one hand it would have been insisted, well before the research was done, that, first and foremost, sexual promiscuity and homosexual urges and behavior were sinful or perverse and hardly as prevalent as Kinsey’s surveys suggested they were. On the other hand it would have been argued that given the lead researcher’s sexual proclivities and political interests—that is, given his interest in having his and many others’ proclivities gain greater public acceptance and not seem perverse—the research could not be objective.

I do not want to divert this paper into a discussion of the possibility or impossibility of scholarly objectivity. I think the simplest approach then is simply to put my cards on the table, to say that this paper has been written with the presumption that scholarly objectivity is an illusion that, among other things, “prevents a distancing awareness in the audience.” That is, the putative objectivity allows readers to get lost in the subject much as viewers happily lose themselves in a darkened movie theater. They lose track of the extent to which Eve Democracy—or, say, Eve Entomologist or Eve Theoretical Physicist—is performing, following a script, speaking to the desires and fears of her audience, as well as to her own.


By Way of Conclusion

Watching Sympathy for the Devil viewers could feel annoyed, wishing and not being fully able to enter into a false, voyeuristic intimacy with the music industry or with Eve Democracy (the character, or with Anne Wiazemsky, the actress). But these viewers would also find themselves, perhaps against their wills, in greater touch with the nature and business of voyeurism. More “holistic” statin research might have given us less information—however questionable—about statins, and yet in telling us more about the terms under which medical research is done, it would have given us yet more valuable insight into the Lipitor, Crestor, et al., that our doctors keep urging upon us and also into the whole world of pharmacology in which we and our health and our finances are caught up, and the world of faith to which we turn when the terms of our existence seem unbearable.

The wave of sexual liberation that crested around 1970 has receded. The pressures of church, community, and family values on individuals’ sexual lives have been more than replaced by the pressures of employers, peers, and conformism, and by the uses of sex to sell products and services on television and everywhere else. Should we say that sex requires not just private spaces but space in the mind and uncluttered, un-impinged-upon time, time when one is content to be doing nothing but what one is doing and to be in contact with no one but the person one may be having sex with. And such space and time has been largely given and taken away.

Nonetheless, for a brief, wonderful moment, the Kinsey reports did help liberate the sex lives of many Americans—gay, straight, and otherwise. From Jones:

Of course, Kinsey’s work did not cause the shifts in sexual attitudes and behavior that occurred in the United States during his lifetime. First, those shifts had been under way for several decades before his books were published, as Kinsey himself documented so richly; and second, they were driven more by social and economic changes than by the work of sex researchers. What Kinsey did accomplish was to bring intimate matters into the open so that people could discuss them with unprecedented candor. This cultural dialogue, in turn, helped shape what followed.

I consider Kinsey a great American and believe his biography helps us understand the sources and motivations of a great deal of our science. But I am also here to say that a more honest, more transparent approach could have led to a yet richer, fuller, and more informative result than the startling results that were achieved. Among other things, such a project could have spoken to the interconnections between research and funding and personal and political agendas. It could have given us “facts” that were not distanced or disconnected from the context in which they were created, the ongoing dialogue in which they intervened. It might have spoken more deeply about human knowledge, and how it always has self-interested and political components.

I hope that I have given an idea of some of the issues and approaches that are of interest to us at Zeteo, and I am yet more hopeful that I have touched on your own interests in these topics. Below this text can be found a list of some of the Zeteo pieces that are most involved in uniting the personal, the political, and the intellectual.

The conference for which this paper was developed had for its theme “Revolutions: Past, Present, and Future.” With this in mind, to close I will borrow a line from Masculin/Feminin, one of the many half-ironic pronouncements in Godard’s movies: “à force d’être dans la lutte on finit par apprendre.” Glossing and extrapolating, we might say that the end of struggle—the end of revolution, of exploring “the personal, the political, and the intellectual,” and of conferences more generally—should be awareness, wonderful, if “distancing” awareness. And, ideally, greater awareness should not distance us, but bring us into greater contact with the circumstances and forces of our lives and of our creative and intellectual work.


William Eaton is the Editor of Zeteo. A collection of his essays, Surviving the Twenty-First Century, will be published by Serving House Books. For more, see Surviving the website.


Examples of Zeteo and Wm. Eaton work that combines personal, political, and intellectual elements

Vanessa Badagliacca. “Doing and Nothing: An exploration of Song Dong’s Doing Nothing Garden and the possibility of renewing ourselves and our environment through not doing.” Zeteo, 2014.

Sue Ellen Christian and Ann Miles. “Consent and Money: A dialogue on the ethical dilemmas in the reporting and writing of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Zeteo, 2013.

William Eaton. Moscow to the End of the LineAgni, 2008.

——. “The King’s Therapy: Exploring our hopes for a cure with help from The King’s Speech.” Zeteo, 2012.

——. The UnsaidAgni, 2014.

Lama Zuhair Khouri. “On Being the Enemy: An Arab Mother’s Reflections on the Boston Tragedy.” Zeteo, 2013.

Edward Mooney. “Thoreau : Mourning Turtle Doves.” Zeteo, 2012.

Catherine Vigier. “The Meaning of Lana Del Rey: Pop culture, post-feminism and the choices facing young women today.” Zeteo, 2012.



From An Angel at My Table, a 1990 film directed by Jane Campion and based on New Zealand author Janet Frame’s three autobiographies, To the Is-Land (1982), An Angel at My Table (1984), and The Envoy from Mirror City (1984). The moment pictured here occurs just after the disrobing described in the present text.


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Distancing / Awareness

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